Paul Metcalf should need no introduction. He is seventy years old, the author of fifteen books. In the judgment of Guy Davenport, he is “the most innovative of contemporary American writers, the only one to invent a new form for prose.” His books, however, have gone virtually unreviewed. He does not figure in surveys of contemporary literature. Over the years, three or four little magazines have devoted special issues to his work (most recently Sagetrieb, Winter, 1986), but the critics have yet to discover him. Even readers who know Metcalf’s work have a difficult time keeping up with him. Published by small presses and haphazardly distributed, his books must be tracked down; some of them, such as Golden Delicious (1985) and Firebird (1987), have been issued only in expensive fine press editions with very small printings.
To a great degree, this state of affairs is a measure of Metcalf’s originality. No ready-made term fits what he is doing: He is neither a poet, a novelist, nor a historian, though his work partakes of the skills of all three. Only his first book, the novel Will West (1956), unconventional but still within the bounds of the genre, can be readily pigeonholed. With his long-gestating second book, Genoa: A Telling of Wonders (1965), Metcalf found that “new form for prose” celebrated by Guy Davenport, the possibilities of which he has continued to explore.
A book by Metcalf is a collage of texts; a given page is likely to include short passages from several sources, often in different typefaces, sometimes interwoven with Metcalf’s own words, sometimes not: The effect is polyphonic. This weave of texts is laid out in a manner that recalls the later Cantos of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson, yet Metcalf’s style is finally his own.
It is not a style that lends itself to brief quotation. Metcalf’s intention is to allow distinctive voices to speak for themselves, with a minimum of commentary. In Apalache (1976), for example, which ranges from the prehistory of eastern North America to the twentieth century, he makes poetry out of lists of words:
accokeek acquackup the susquehanna and juniata, across the mountains at kithannesasquesahanock, patowomek, chesepiook choccoloco,chockolog fakahatchee, loxahatchee meddybemps, saukatunkarunkout of the valley of menaun-gehilla to the mouth of little kanawha
This passage is from the opening pages of Apalache, in the section entitled “Bash Bish,” where Metcalf weaves Native American words with extracts from the narratives of early European settlers, awestruck at the beauty of the New World: two distinct visions of the land, which he presents from a third perspective as well, in the language of the geologist:
appalachia: resistant relic of metamorphism, the roots and stumps, the truncated base of diastrophic tilts and foldsthe forelands, the sediments, the clastic wedgesflanked by monadnocks in the piedmont, by swarms ofultrabasic rock in the crystalline oldland of new england
With no editorializing, those Indian words evoke the richness and the profound...
(The entire section is 1550 words.)